“hello, sir—i mean, ma’am”: trans etiquette for dummies*

*This is one of my older pieces of published writing, predating even my old blog. Sometime in 2004 or 2005, perhaps? I’m not even sure of the publication date. I did some editing to bring it up to date, especially in terms of web links. For those of you who are trans or trans allies, you may find it pretty elementary – this post may actually be more suitable for forwarding to other people. Regardless, I’ll be happy if it means even one previously ignorant person ends up being nicer to trans people.

(On a completely unrelated note, U of T is putting on some very interesting lectures in the next little while – I’ve posted the details of a couple of them at the bottom of this post.)


I’ve been wondering for quite some time how to broach the subject of transgender and transsexual people in my column. The idea of pontificating on trans people’s realities is a little uncomfortable for me since, well, I’m not trans; it feels disrespectful to me to presume to speak for people who are. At the same time, I recognize that lots of us have a hard time understanding trans issues both politically and personally. What are transsexuals really all about? Are trans people really like the ones we see on TV and in cheesy horror films?

I can’t justify the idea of keeping silent on the subject when I’m well aware that transfolk need the support of their allies and friends. So, as a supportive SOFFA (Significant Other, Friend, Family or Ally of trans people), I feel I should provide what information I can.

Let me first state that I really didn’t write this article for dummies. I don’t think most of us are dummies at all; in fact, quite the opposite. I trust that most people in the world are perfectly intelligent, and really do want to be nice to most other people, and we just trip up along the way sometimes or forget our manners.

I think the most important thing to remember about dealing with anybody, regardless of their gender, is respect. Particularly when it comes to people who don’t conform to the traditional ideas of what gender and sex should be, we need to remember that a person’s gender is theirs to own and express as they please. We do not have to understand someone’s gender identity, or agree with it, in order to respect it. But of course, some understanding can certainly help too!

The Trouble with Terminology

Here’s a bit of basic terminology to get us started: when someone is born with a male body but identifies as a woman, or has transitioned physically in that direction through hormones and/or surgery, they are often referred to as a transwoman, or male-to-female trans person, sometimes abbreviated to MTF. When someone is born in a female body but identifies as a man or has transitioned physically in that direction through hormones and/or surgery, they are often referred to as a transman, or female-to-male trans person, sometimes abbreviated to FTM. Doctors sometimes get this backward, but don’t be fooled—now you are in the know. On another note, some people who have transitioned choose not to focus on their status as transgender or transsexual, but instead identify simply as a woman or as a man, their gender of choice. Some such folks use the term “person of trans experience” but many do not.

Transsexuals are not the only stripe of gender-variant people out there. I have now, and have had in the past, many close friends, partners, colleagues, acquaintances and lovers who identify as “differently gendered” on some level—some genderqueer, some transsexual, some intersex, some transgender, and some who don’t really have the words for who they are (trans terminology can be fascinating to learn about if you are so inclined). There is a lot of disagreement within and between these various communities of folks, much of it highly politicized. Some transsexual people are very committed to the idea that there is such thing as Male and Female, like the boxes on a form, and they happen to have been born in the wrong body but surgery could help them move from the M box into the F one, or vice versa. Some transgender and genderqueer people would like to abolish those boxes altogether, and feel they personally exist somewhere in between or beyond that spectrum. And various people of all genders think there’s room for both those options and more to boot. (I happen to be one of the latter, in case it doesn’t show yet!)

Please and Thank-You: the Basics

People get their knickers in a knot around gender stuff. I do understand, because it’s highly sensitive territory both personally for many and politically. But it’s really not that hard to navigate if you bear in mind that everyone has different opinions and experiences of gender, and all you need to do is approach the issues, and the people themselves, with respect and openness.

Remember that trans people are people; “he” and “she” are the pronouns most often used. Some people prefer in-between pronouns, but that’s a whole other essay—if you meet someone who wants you to use an alternate pronoun, they should be able to explain it to you (check out this excellent page if you’re curious). At no point should we refer to a trans person as “it.” That’s just rude—they are not inanimate objects or animals.

It is not a trans person’s responsibility to be convincing enough to “pass” as their gender of choice before they deserve to be referred to with the pronoun of their choice. Government-issue papers, style of dress, body type, haircut, voice, sexual orientation, and any number of other cues do not necessarily reflect a person’s pronoun or gender identity. This stuff is complicated even for those who move comfortably in social worlds full of transfolk (trust me!), but treating people with basic courtesy isn’t hard to do.

So if a person has not made their pronoun preference clear to you when you first meet, and you aren’t sure how to refer to them, just ask. “What pronoun do you prefer?” Simple. Straightforward. And when you get the answer, respect it. I don’t care if the person I’m speaking to is a six-foot-three linebacker with five o’clock shadow—if the answer to that question is “My name is Elsa and use ‘she’,” then Elsa is “she” to me from that point onwards. It costs me nothing save a bit of mindfulness to be respectful even if my read on a person’s gender does not correspond to theirs.

If I should “slip” either before knowing the preferred pronoun or once I’ve been told, I can apologize briefly and make the correction. It is not a mortal sin to make a slip of the tongue; there’s no need to make it out to be one, as that just draws more uncomfortable attention to it. “Robert— sorry, Roberta—can you pass the salt?” On the other hand, repeated slips with the same person can be hurtful, much like if a friend consistently gets your name wrong, only amplified. Just be aware of the impact your forms of address may have on someone’s sense of acceptance, dignity and safety, and pay attention to them accordingly.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that using insulting terms to refer to trans people is not a great idea. Just because a cheap porn movie advertises “chicks with dicks” doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use that when talking about the girl you just met in your poli-sci class. People who use this kind of term are usually pretty darn ignorant or just utterly lacking in class—we can be proud that we are not among their number, and if they ever use such words in front of us, we can tell them we think it’s really rotten and explain why.

Asking Questions—or Just Being Nosy?

Remember that there is no reason to ask someone if they are trans unless you are about to get into an intimate situation with them and the answer to that question will determine your interest or consent. There is also no reason to ask what their genitals look like, how much surgery they have had, and so forth. Part of this is about the possible serious problems you may cause in their life—if you bark out such a question in front of their employer, a friend they have not confided in or a group of people who are unfriendly to trans people, you may create major consequences for that individual, up to and including death (one need only learn about the case of Gwen Araujo’s murder to understand that loud and clear). But once again it’s about respect. If you have a name and a pronoun for the person you have just met, that’s quite sufficient for just about any social situation. How would most of us feel if, in casual conversation, people regularly asked us about our medical history and what sort of private parts we have? Rather invasive and rude, isn’t it? So let’s not do it to others.

If someone’s physical parts become relevant to some sort of intimate involvement you may be seeking to have with them, then bring it up respectfully. If you are in the BDSM scene, for example, you may have specific concerns depending on the type of play you might want to engage in. If you’d like to flog someone’s chest, you might want to know if they have implants that could burst or if they’ve recently recovered from a double mastectomy. If you are going to cane someone’s thighs, you might want to know if they are doing intramuscular testosterone injections in those very muscles which might make them more sensitive to pain. These concerns can be easily covered by asking, “Is there anything health-related that I should be aware of before playing with you in this way?” If it’s relevant, they should tell you.

Private Parts Are Exactly That

If you are going to have sex with someone or play with their genitals, you will likely want to know the particularities of dealing with that person’s body. My friend S. Bear Bergman tells me that his preferred question is “What do you call it and how can I touch it?” Not everyone will have pat answers to that, of course—but if you approach someone with sensitivity and willingness to listen, you will both surely get much more of your encounter.

A person’s dangly or non-dangly bits don’t necessarily match up with what the person may want those bits to look like, and their existence at all doesn’t mean that the person necessarily wants to use them in traditional ways. In these situations, you just gotta ask, and ask nicely and respectfully. But unless you plan to be playing with genitals, those details are none of your business unless the trans person in question feels like sharing of his or her own volition.

A few brave trans activists have created books with photos of trans people’s genitals. For FTMs, check out Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits by Loren Cameron, or his ManTool website and e-book; for information about surgeries for trans women, check out TSRoadmap.

These resources can help you if you want to get an idea of what trans genitals might be like. But please remember that these people are not a freak show. It takes an enormous amount of courage to show your genitals to the world in the hopes of educating people who are unaware, and that kind of courage deserves respect and open-mindedness, not points and stares.

Also, keep in mind that the status of someone’s genitals doesn’t necessarily have much to do with their gender identity.

Hormones, which have an effect on secondary sex characteristics (hair growth patterns, body shape, skin, voice and so forth) and on genitals are possible to obtain through doctors in Canada, but not for everyone; some people don’t have access to health care (non-status immigrants, for example), some people can’t find a trans-friendly doctor, some don’t wish to deal with their gender through a medical model, and some are so marginalized by the health care system and other authority-holding systems that they may hesitate to even approach them (some sex workers, for example). For these and other reasons, some people may use hormones that are available on the street. In either case, the long-term effects of hormone use have never been studied, so many trans people are understandably hesitant to take them at all.

Trans surgeries are expensive and risky and can involve long waiting periods and criteria that many feel are unfair and exclusive; even in “progressive” places of the world, the accessibility of surgery varies widely. For example, in Canada, trans surgeries are covered to greater degrees in some provinces, like Alberta; in Quebec there are so many hoops to leap through that in most cases surgery is effectively impossible to get without paying out of pocket, even though Montreal is home one of the world’s most renowned sex reassignment surgery clinics; and in Ontario, coverage has only recently been re-listed after a decade of no coverage, but policy is still up in the air in terms of the criteria that will be used to determine who will be permitted to enjoy that coverage. Regardless of cost and accessibility, though, the decision to have surgery is not an easy one to make. Many trans people choose not to have surgery for reasons related to their health, their understanding of the possible risks (such as loss of sexual sensation, among other things), or any number of other highly personal criteria.

The decisions to take hormones or not, or to have surgery or not, are complex. A given person’s choice doesn’t make their gender any more or less valid.

Becoming an Ally… or Just Finding More Answers

If you’re interested in learning about trans issues, rather than quizzing the trans people you may meet, I would suggest that you look through traditional sources first. Lots of online and print resources are fairly easy to find. To start on a serious note, check out Remembering Our Dead, which lists trans people who have been killed in violent crimes. For general info, go to TS FAQ, a well-written resource for those who are totally unfamiliar with trans issues. Or order a book or two—I highly recommend the excellent and very absorbing writings of Patrick Califia (Sex Changes: Transgender Politics), Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Warriors: Beyond Pink or Blue) and Kate Bornstein (particularly My Gender Workbook). These are all non-academic, accessible works that can help you gain insight into your own gender as well as others’.

You may even be able to contact a trans support group in your area and ask if they recommend any particular resources, or if they have a spokesperson who might be able to answer your questions once you’ve looked into things on your own. If you’re up for some travel, you can attend some wonderful and inexpensive conferences you can attend if you want to immerse yourself in learning for a day or a weekend—among others, the Translating Identity Conference is a free one-day conference held annually in Burlington, Vermont.

If there is a trans person in your life and you’d like to better understand how to be a supportive ally, or find help dealing with your own concerns, check out these links to various SOFFA groups.

Of course, if you have a friend who is trans and that person is open to discussing their own experience and knowledge, by all means pick their brains—but just don’t assume that every trans person is equipped to provide education or interested in doing so. Being trans in the first place, and dealing with all the related challenges, can be enough of a burden sometimes; it’s not fair to assume that trans people should have the responsibility to enlighten the world around them as well, especially since that world does not always receive that education respectfully even when it is requested.

Whether you want to carry out an in-depth study on the history of trans people’s legal and medical issues, or you just want to know how to properly address your new next-door neighbour, it’s useful to have a basic understanding of the concerns that trans people may face in a world that’s often harsh. Learning about trans issues can help you understand yourself better, or simply be more aware of the struggles going on in the world around you. Personally, I am always very impressed with people who make a point of learning about people who are different from them. Unravelling the mysteries of gender is no small thing to tackle, but the journey of continued learning brings many rewards along the way. And in the meantime, while we’re all figuring out the answers, treating others as we would want to be treated is still the way to go.


———— ——— ——— ——— ——–


Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, UK (2000-2008)
David Miller, Mayor of Toronto (2003-present)
Denise Simmons, Mayor of Cambridge, MA, USA (2008-present)
David Crombie, Moderator

Monday January 26th, 2009
University of Toronto Convocation Hall

This event is free and open to the public; students are especially welcome.
———— ——— ——— —-


The first of this term’s Sexual Diversity Studies Colloquium sessions:

Friday, January 30 4:30-5:30pm
University College Room 253

Tyler Frederick
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Sociology U of T

Title: Drug use and mental health outcomes among homeless youth: Exploring gender and sexual minority status as “multiple disadvantages”

Abstract: This presentation will discuss the results of a comparison of heterosexual and sexual minority homeless youth across a number of risk and outcome factors with a focus on gender differences. The results suggest that many of the differences between sexual minority and heterosexual youth are driven by the young women in the sample. Additional analysis finds that high rates of victimization and delinquency among the female sexual minority youth help to explain their higher rates of drug use and mental health problems as compared to their heterosexual counterparts. The findings will be discussed as they relate to and challenge the concept of multiple disadvantage (a popular idea in the literature on sexual minority homeless Youth).

4 thoughts on ““hello, sir—i mean, ma’am”: trans etiquette for dummies*

  1. The first time I met a transwoman, or rather I should say someone I could see was trans, it was easy. She was introduced to me by her female first name. (She also dressed more female than male – not über-femme). So in spite of indicators that she was transitioning from a male physique, such as her facial features and deep voice, just knowing her name made things clear. This was not a kink-related event, just an ordinary social gathering. It was relaxed and fun.

    I’ve found it more difficult with someone presenting androgynously, and sometimes the chosen name doesn’t give anything away either. Luckily gender doesn’t make a big difference in my language when you speak to someone, but once you speak of someone, you need a pronoun (like in English). In such an encounter in the past I’ve hesitated and waited for clues from the conversation. It wasn’t really productive. On the other hand, if someone deliberately transcends gender binaries in their appearance, some hesitation and confusion on the other’s part is probably expected and doesn’t appear too rude. Thanks for the blog (I’ve been reading for a while, *delurk*) and for reposting the article. Next time I meet someone whose preferred pronoun I can’t figure out from the introduction, I’ll take your advice and ask.

  2. Hey, this is a really nice post! I’ll definitely consider pointing non-trans people towards it.

    Thanks for speaking up about trans issues. Some cisgender people might feel more comfortable engaging with other cis people about these issues; plus, you know what things cis people tend to misunderstand, so you can address those points directly. I always have to ask a cis friend whether my “trans 101” pieces are understandable from their viewpoint.

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